Making your research accessible

Evidence and Engagement: The balancing act of the Policy Brief

By 15/08/2012

In the research undertaken by RAPID in 2008, findings revealed that most policymakers only spend up to 60 minutes reading information on a particular issue. Effectively communicating evidence within such a stringent time limit is the challenge which researchers face when constructing a policy brief.

But how can specialist research findings be translated for the non-specialist audience while being both informative and engaging?

This is the issue which so often confuses the process of research to policy communication. A policy brief is written for a decision maker. It must convey a clear message which can be easily understood in the clamour of competing influences and demands. It must be designed for the specifications of the audience context- taking into consideration cultural, experiential and traditional factors as well as existing lobbyists and advocacy groups active in the field. Effective policy making demands an engagement with all the interwoven influences criss-crossing the field of development.

Focused clearly on one issue, as a general rule policy briefs should be no more than 1500 words (2-4 pages in length). Therefore, to get your message across succinctly, careful planning is required.

Before writing begins there are three questions to ask:

  1. Who is the brief for?
  2. What is the existing demand?
  3. How knowledgeable are the readers on the subject?

Who is the Brief for?

  • Consider the policy context surrounding the research.
  • Consider the position of your audience within a national and sub-national framework
  • Evaluate the needs of the target audience- are social policies prioritised over economic ones?
  • Consider existing policy processes and link your information to them
  • Ensure that recommendations are actionable- outline clear steps to feasible implementation

What is the existing demand?

  • Highlight other organisations working in this area
  • Consider the degree of urgency- are persuasive methods necessary?
  • Outline the benefits to areas non-related to your field of research, i.e. Economic Output of local area, improved housing, increased tourism.
  • If there is no existing demand- consider how to engage readers

How knowledgeable are the readers?

  • Ensure you outline your argument in accessible language at the beginning of the brief- this way readers are more able to understand the context of the evidence
  • Use clear and accessible language (non-specialist)
  • Use visual aids to highlight key issues, i.e. text boxes to highlight key recommendations, graphics to clearly illustrate research findings and potential outcomes
  • Structure the brief so that readers can follow a line of argument- outline case studies, methodology, evidence and conclusions leading to policy recommendations

Essentially the success of the Policy Brief relies on anticipating the response of the reader. By breaking down reader response into stages, attention can be given to each, so that the brief has the best possible chance of not just being picked up, but being read and understood, and, hopefully, acted upon.

  1. “What is this?”

Policy makers look for legitimacy in research. Ensuring the policy briefs have a house style and that the masthead is clearly identifiable as belonging to your organisation highlights the source of the brief, and the precedent of the research.

  1. “Looks interesting…”

In a pile of documents each with pressing demands, a policy brief could easily be overlooked if it is dull in appearance. Making the brief visually engaging means the reader is more likely to pick it up.

  1. “Why should I read it?”

It’s in their hand but does the information apply to them? An engaging title, a question perhaps, highlighting the necessity for the brief, provides the reader with a “hook”, the question they now need answering.

  1. “I haven’t really got the time…”

With the average policy maker only spending between 30 and 60 minutes reading them, policy briefs need to convey their message quickly and concisely. Providing an executive summary as well as a condensed list of key recommendations on the initial page means that even if the reader does not get any further they will have understood the core of your message.

  1. “How have they come to those conclusions?”

The reader is not a specialist in this field- evidence alone does not scream out the answers. Presenting the research findings in an accessible format with evidence-informed opinions means the reader will understand the argument and the line of reasoning behind each recommendation.